Holiday Reading, or the Lack Thereof

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Part of my US book haul

Usually, holidays are a delightful excuse to do All The Reading. When I went home for two weeks in the middle of this month, though, I… didn’t. There are a couple of reasons for this, I think. One is that I read a lot for my actual job, and I would read at least as much if I weren’t a bookseller, anyway. Another is that I was having a really hard time focusing: my parents live about ten miles outside of Charlottesville, Virginia; I went to school there. The intersection where Heather Heyer was murdered by a Nazi is the same intersection where my dad used to pick me up from my weekend job. My best friend was punched in the face by a Nazi that Saturday. It’s one thing to see this in the media; it’s another to see, in the background of the news photos and footage, landmarks as familiar and dear to you as your own hand. A third reason is that, perhaps in order to distract us all from that heinous shit, my parents had me on a heavy schedule of visiting old and new friends, drinking wine in central Virginia’s many vineyards, going to restaurants and art exhibits, and generally Keeping Busy. Reading fell by the wayside a little.

I did read some books while I was there—more on those in August Superlatives at the end of the month. Perhaps more importantly, my dad and I had a Grand Day Out near the end of my visit, which consisted of a ridiculously delicious meal, complete with dessert wine, followed by a tour of downtown Charlottesville’s many bookshops. (I even managed to introduce him to some he’d never been into!) Herewith, a rundown of purchases:

Coding Freedom by E. Gabriella Coleman—from Blue Whale Books (secondhand fiction and general nonfiction; modern first editions; antiquarian Virginiana and maps[!]) I’ve wanted to read this ever since I read The Idealist, Justin Peters’s biography of Aaron Swartz. Coleman writes about the ethics of hacking, free culture, and free/open source software. It’s not particularly technical, so my low code-reading ability is no handicap; it’s heavier on legal and philosophical arguments. It’s also actually on my Goodreads TBR.

Roughing It by Mark Twain—from Read It Again Sam (secondhand general fiction, children’s, huge thriller and sci-fi sections) My dad adores Mark Twain. He has previously told me to read both Roughing It and The Innocents Abroad, Twain’s American and European travelogues. Read It Again Sam’s copy of Roughing It was slightly smaller and in paperback, so the choice was obvious. I’m reading this now and it is simply delightful: detailed, observant, and dryly funny as hell.

Mystery and Manners by Flannery O’Connor—from Daedalus Books (If you ever go to Charlottesville, you must go here. It is owned by Sandy McAdams, who has had MS and been in a wheelchair for at least as long as I can remember, and who yet continues to run this three-storey townhouse on the corner of 4th and Market, crammed to the literal rafters with secondhand paperbacks. The place is a labyrinth of treasure.) I’ve loved Flannery O’Connor since I wrote a paper on her short stories at the end of my junior year in high school. That paper got me into Oxford. Since then, I’ve moved from uncritical adulation to a kind of baffled fascination—you can never quite tell what O’Connor thinks, and I’ve started believing that she’s far less healthy and/or generally correct than I previously thought—but her voice is undeniable and addictive. This is a collection of her essays and lectures; irresistible.

The Devil In Silver by Victor LaValle—from New Dominion Bookshop (I worked at New Dominion all through high school. The proprietor, Carol Troxell, was a beloved mentor and role model; when I went to university, she took me to lunch, gave me a pair of pearl earrings and told me never to open a joint bank account with a man. She died very unexpectedly earlier this year, and for a while the shop’s future was in doubt. As of my visit, her husband Robert had hired a manager, Julia, who has done amazing things with the shop stock and generally modernised some of its more antiquated aspects. It’s in good hands.) The best thing to do in a bookshop if you have no particular agenda, but want to buy something, is to go straight to a bookseller, ask them to recommend you one paperback book, and then buy it—no questions asked, no arguments. This is what happened at New Dominion; Robert (not Carol’s husband, a different Robert) recommended The Devil In Silver, an allegorical horror novel set in an insane asylum. I’ve heard of LaValle and I love how Robert described him: as someone working in a Lovecraftian tradition, but whose motivating horror is the fear of institutionalised racism, as opposed to Lovecraft’s fear of the racial Other. Sign me up.

Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun, by Sarah Ladipo Manyika—from New Dominion Bookshop Because Naomi loved it, and described it as being about “a woman in her 70s who’s lived a varied life, unafraid to dress as she pleases, contemplate tattoos, read voraciously and discuss sexuality and how she’s found life as a woman and as a person of colour.” Uh, YES.

I also had a Grand Day Out with my younger brother Nick, which resulted in some book purchases. Three of them came from Telegraph Comics, a new art and comic shop downtown which has a great, highly curated graphic novels section: I bought volume 3 of Saga, Brian K. Vaughan’s intergalactic love-story-against-great-odds that features my beloved Lying Cat (and some more naked people), volume 1 of Y: the Last Man by the same writer, which posits a world where all men but one—Yorick—have been killed by a gendered virus, and The Case of the Team Spirit by John Allison, the first collected Bad Machinery story (which you can read here, as well as Allison’s other [brilliant] work). Oh, and I also found a pristine copy of the Arden Shakespeare edition of King Lear for $4 in a junk shop in Ruckersville. Score!

I’ve already read Saga vol. 3 and The Case of the Team Spirit, and am working my way through Roughing It right now—which shall I choose next?

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Fireside Chats With a Bookseller, III

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“So, have you read all of these books?”

To begin with, a brief primer on humour: even the wittiest of witticisms (of which this comment is not one) wears thin after repetition. This is the sort of fact of which I had hoped most canny adults were aware, but, like so much about adulthood, the reality thus far proves disappointing.

Secondly: of course I have not read all of these books. You know that anyway; you are not asking because you actually care or think I might have, but either because you are uncomfortable with silence, or because you are doing that thing some customers do, where they know you cannot be rude to them up to a certain point of unacceptable behaviour on their part, so they torment you with banalities on purpose. More on this in an episode to come.

The interesting thing about working in a bookshop is that you do not get time to read books during the day. The corollary to the above remark (and perhaps the more annoying one) is “Oh, I wish I worked here! You must just read all day!” No, actually. It’s where I work. Bookselling is a job, therefore a bookshop is also an office. Waitresses don’t eat all day; bartenders don’t drink all night (well…); doctors don’t spend their surgery hours writing themselves prescriptions, and lawyers don’t sue their own ex-spouses. Booksellers don’t read at work. We’re busy doing other things, including but not limited to: unpacking daily boxes of deliveries from wholesale distributors and publishers; having meetings with sales reps; invoicing account customers; shelving stock; processing web orders; fixing our own mistakes; ordering special titles or reordering regularly needed titles; recommending titles to customers; processing sales through the till; and, of course, answering emails, seventy-five percent of which consist of queries the answer to which is easily found by spending two minutes on our website.

When a job description says of the ideal candidate for the role that they “will have passion and enthusiasm”, it is generally utter guff. You don’t need passion or enthusiasm to do most jobs, no matter what recruitment specialists say; the most that ought to be required of you in the majority of industries is competence and being alive. In bookselling, though, those qualities are essential. What other industry relies on you being able to speak knowledgeably on a range of subjects whilst denying you the ability to do your research during work hours? If you aren’t passionate about reading—really passionate, rabidly; if you don’t like it enough to read at lunch, before bed, and/or during your commute—you won’t have enough time to do it at work, during the day. And you’ll be demonstrably less good at your job, much of which (at least in the small indie where I work) involves giving personal recommendations to walk-in customers you’ve never met before. If you haven’t got an arsenal of recent reading to choose from, you’re lost, and if you’re relying on your work hours to give you the time to “just read all day”…forget it.

Fireside Chats With a Bookseller, II

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image credit: Heywood Hill

“Can you get it today?”

There are a lot of reasons to find Amazon unappealing. I know that they have done some valuable work in the sense that they provide a much bigger platform for self-published authors, and even through a veil of retained snobbery, I can recognise that that’s a good thing for a lot of people. It’s pretty clear, though, that they also engage in deeply unsavoury business practices (the Hachette price wars); depressing – though evidently unsuccessful – attempts to break into bricks-and-mortar bookselling; and services like Mechanical Turk, which lets you hire humans to do jobs that computers can’t do, which sounds great until you actually try to sign up for it as a worker, at which point you realise that the tasks are generally painfully menial, you have no way to negotiate with prospective employers, and you’d have to do six hundred of these tasks per day in order to make anything like a decent wage.

They contribute, in other words, to the service economy that we now have, which convinces consumers that anything, any commodity that you can possibly imagine, should be available to you within two hours. Services like Quiqup, Deliveroo and Uber are entirely reliant on this. Amazon drone delivery is a service designed with this in mind. It fosters the idea that you should never have to wait for anything, ever, if you can afford not to.

These are companies that are built on hundreds of thousands of backs, mostly belonging to people who provide unskilled and low-paid labour. It is the only way this particular business model works; the only way that you can get a pizza, or a pair of shoes, physically delivered to you in under an hour is to have an army of people standing by, just waiting for you to order it.

Small, independent businesses do not work like that, and so it always baffles me when a customer – piqued that we cannot, in fact, special-order something for delivery in under an hour – chooses to vent their distress by informing us that they “only shop here to support small businesses and fight Amazon.” You cannot support a small business if you expect it to be doing what Amazon does. If you support a small business, you have to understand what you are sacrificing, and what you will receive in return. As a consumer, you sacrifice a lot of your power: you can only walk out of a small business with whatever is on the shelf at the time; if you order something, you will need to wait – probably no more than 24 hours, because deliveries happen once a day, but waiting is an anomaly for consumers now.

But what you get in return is something magical: people who love what they’re doing. People who will spend half an hour with you, if you are friendly and interested, picking out books that they think you would like. People who will talk to a regular customer about her dog, her kids, her holidays, what she’d like to read next. (Although this deserves a caveat: we’re at work, and just like you in your office, we don’t always have all the time in the world for a catch-up, particularly if you’re regular, but not always a regular customer, if you see what I mean. More on this in another post.) People who know what’s over-hyped and what’s underrated; people who can size you up the second you walk in the door; people who, on their best days, can pluck exactly what you need from a shelf you didn’t even notice. If you have a good independent bookshop nearby, that’s what you’ve got: a building full of witches, of knowledge and instinct and experience. That’s the edge we have over Amazon: you should buy books here not because it’ll make you feel better about your lifestyle, like a smug purchaser of farmer’s market aubergines, but because the results in the long-term are generally better. We can introduce you to authors and books that an algorithm might never have shown you; that sort of thing can change a person’s life.

If you’re not willing to give up immediacy, that’s okay! Some people don’t need or want a high level of personal attention; they want what they know they like, right away, and there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s exactly what Amazon is good for. But if you do earnestly want to support local independent businesses, understand what that means.

(Endnote: I should tell you that there has been one occasion, as far as I know, in the history of the shop, where we exerted ourselves on someone’s behalf to get them a surprising quantity of the same title in the same day. The only way it was possible to do this was to literally walk to Waterstone’s and buy twelve of their copies, walk them back to our shop, and charge the customer. The customer was entirely content with this arrangement. As you’ll have gathered, this was a pretty unusual interaction.)

Fireside Chats With a Bookseller: I

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“Why is it so expensive?”

It is that expensive because that is how much it costs.

That’s the short answer. The long answer is that things cost as much as people are willing to pay for them; that rarity and relative condition are important (and “relative” is often the key word); and that, yes, we are asking you to trust us.

I get asked this question much more frequently about our old and rare stock than about our new stock, and it’s a question I find hard to answer because I am not a trained antiquarian bookseller. I’m a new bookseller, with all of the reading and information bias that suggests. We are about to lose our antiquarian guy, and no one currently at the shop is really equipped to take his place. The amount of stuff it is possible to know about old books is almost endless: provenance, bindings, endpapers, condition, foxing, spines. I have considered getting a Masters degree in or around the subject, but there are people with lifetimes’ more experience than a year-long course will get you, and again: I’m a new bookseller. Old books are objects of intellectual interest to me, not of passion.

The one thing I do know, the one thing that our guy has impressed upon me, is the significance of trust in the old and rare books trade. Plenty of dealers are untrustworthy, in that they will take you for far more than something is really worth, just because it’s old and you look gullible enough to think that matters; or they will misdescribe something in a catalogue, in a way qualitative enough that you can’t really call them on it. In that sense, I suppose, it’s like any other business. So scoping out the place, and the people you’ll be dealing with, before you go in is smart.

But that’s not what this question is; this question never comes from someone who has done their research. This question comes from casual buyers, very rarely account-holders, and it’s designed to make us doubt ourselves. It’s a cheap trick used by cheap people, and like most cheap tricks, it only works on people who don’t really know what they’re doing.

We do. We do know what we’re doing. I did, just above, admit to not being an antiquarian bookseller, but that doesn’t make me an idiot; it means that my response to that question is going to be “The price is as marked”, until my colleague informs me otherwise. Because he’s my colleague and I trust his judgment. As, if you’re going to do business with us, should you.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

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  1. Two and a half weeks into the new job, and I LOVE it. In week one, I handsold books I’d been raving about on this very blog to real people, which was such a great introduction to the many ways in which bookselling is essentially a practical application of reviewing. At the end of week two, I got the nod to manage our social media accounts on a trial basis until April, which is amazingly exciting. On Monday I went with two colleagues to sell books at an event with brilliant American philosopher Daniel Dennett. I am so bloody lucky.
  2. My grandpa had a mild stroke last week (he’s doing well, home from hospital, and recovering incredibly swiftly), so I went down to visit him and my grandmother over the weekend. They live in a village by the South Downs that’s so ridiculously lovely it’s practically fictional. Everyone there is either a retired brigadier or related to a duchess. My auntie came down too and we had some gorgeous walks with the (horrible little) dogs.
  3. On the other hand, it turns out that working a full week, then handling someone else’s ironing, recycling, dishwashing and phone contract admin for two days, then going back to work on Monday, is tiring.
  4. The other day I had to skip my morning coffee and by 11:30 a.m. had acquired a headache that lasted on and off until 5 p.m. This is Not A Good Sign.
  5. We’re going to France for four days on Friday and I don’t know which books to bring. I have two review copies, Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada, and Sand by Wolfgang Herrndorf, which I will definitely finish in four days. Should I bring them both, or bring one and then knock out one or two of the books on my phone? Or should I bring one of the books I’ve been allowed to take home from work because they’re damaged: Swing Time by Zadie Smith, The Dry by Jane Harper, and Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett? Or should I bring the proof I just got today from a debut author: Larchfield by Polly Clark? SO MANY CHOICES. (Seriously, if you have an opinion, let me know. I need help.)
  6. Right now I’m reading Sebastian Barry’s Costa Award-winning Days Without End, as a buddy read with the indomitable Esther of Esther Writes. (You heard me! Stay tuned.) Holy moly. It’s so dense, the writing is so thick with imagery and none of it is strained or pathetic, and it reminds me of so many different things at once. It reads a little like a more poetic True History of the Kelly Gang, though there are also very light shades of Blood Meridian. It is really superb.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts is run by Christine at Bookishly Boisterous. Link back, say hi.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

Run by Christine at Bookishly Boisterous, to whom I often forget to give credit, which is bad.

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  1. I have a MAJOR ANNOUNCEMENT, and it is this: I am now officially a bookseller again! I’m starting at Heywood Hill (a small but perfectly formed shop in Mayfair; you may have seen it in Vanity Fair or profiled recently in the Times) on Monday. I could not possibly be more excited. The shop runs Year in Books subscriptions (twelve or six months, depending on your preferences and budget, with a new hardback book, hand-picked by us booksellers and tailored to your personal literary tastes, delivered to you each month) and helps to build private libraries as well as just, you know, selling books. I am overwhelmed with delight at the idea of actually being paid to do this. Please, if you are in or near London, come and visit me!
  2. Over the weekend, I was singing at a gig in the church of St Mary-le-Bow (late C19 French choral music, if you’re interested), and had to run out during a rehearsal break to buy a black folder from a nearby Rymans. I also picked up a four-pack of black fine-point Uniball pens, because they’re the best pens of all time, and handwriting the novel has suddenly become extra enjoyable. Seriously, writing with these things is a sheer delight: a perfect, smooth line, a balanced weight in the hand… I love them.
  3. All of my makeup is running out. I’ve been reduced to smearing my ever-flatter lipstick stub onto my mouth every other day, instead of daily, and I’ve been hacking my mascara as a crude eyeliner for months now. (This is so embarrassing and I wish it weren’t true, but if you’re ever in an emergency, trust: you can use mascara as eyeliner. Just wibble the wand around the inside top edge of the tube, so it gets nice and thick, then make sure you hold your eyelid down hard while you poke at it. It’s not elegant but it gets the job done.) Anyway, I need some more cosmetics and that right speedily. My eyeliner is non-negotiable (L’Oreal 24 Hour Gel), but on the lipstick front, I’m thinking Burt’s Bees—moisturiser AND deep colour!—and maybe an Avon gloss stick. Any other recs? (Nb: my top limit for lipstick price is twenty quid. I absolutely refuse to pay more than that for what is basically face crayon.)
  4. Winter is always a difficult time for me to eat sensibly (“Why can’t we just order pizza like normals?” I shouted at the Chaos, as he cruelly forced me to stirfry some broccoli and mushrooms in soy sauce, in the name of getting some vitamins, this afternoon.) Anxiety this year has made it all the harder. I have a curious feeling that the new job is going to make a huge dent in the anxiety problem—I keep getting little bubbles of joy just thinking about it, which has to be a good sign—so I’m keeping an eye out for things I’d like to cook and eat soon. Spaghetti with lemon and olive oil is near the top of the list, followed by apple and honey cake from my Riverford cookbook.

Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts

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We were in Cornwall all last week, Airbnb’ing in a studio flat above a gallery on Barnoon Hill in St. Ives. So this week’s Bookish and Not-So-Bookish Thoughts is Cornwall-themed!

  1. First things first, Cornwall is utterly beautiful. We went for a long walk one day and by the time we came back into town, the Chaos was saying things like “I could get a gig at Truro Cathedral” and peering in the windows of estate agents.
  2. St. Ives is famous for two things, primarily: being an outstandingly good-looking coastal town, and artists. Barbara Hepworth was one of them, a sculptor who moved down to Cornwall in the 1940s with her children and husband to escape the Blitz. She was a total boss—had triplets unexpectedly in rural nowheresville, divorced husband #1 after a few years, lived scandalously with husband #2 before actually getting hitched, competed with Henry Moore for commissions, and became such a part of the St. Ives community that she threatened to take the town council to court when they wanted to make the beautiful hill area into a massive car park. She was made a Dame in 1965. She died after a fire in her studio that started because she insisted on smoking in bed. The pictures of her make her look like a boss biddy, and I would like to write a novel about her. Her sculptures are also beautiful, powerful forms that were way ahead of their time.
  3. Speaking of novels, I didn’t write every day on holiday, but the days I did write were great: over 1,000 words every time. I’m also well past the 20,000-word mark. In fact, I missed it when it happened. The next benchmark will be 25,000, for which I need some suitable way to celebrate. Ideas welcome.
  4. Reading on holiday was great, but also awkward. I started Neal Stephenson’s magisterial (= 912-page) The System of the World in the train on the way down, which was utterly brilliant and absorbing but which took me three days. By then, I only had two days left, and, because I’m a twit, five more books in my suitcase. I ploughed on, read The Tailor of Panama, which was a fun little relaxing number, and most of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s second Cazalet book, Marking Time (which I’ve now finished). I am just going to read all of my planned holiday reading in the week after the actual holiday, I guess. (The others: Starship Troopers; Lolly Willowes; Hot Milk.)
  5. Cornwall has an unusually high proportion of Regionally Significant Foodstuffs: meat-and-potato pasties, Cornish clotted cream, “the cream tea” (scones + clotted cream + strawberry jam), ice cream, fudge. If you are in St. Ives, your range of options for pasties and fudge is immense—nearly every shop in the middle of town seems to sell one or the other, if not both. We can also personally attest to the deliciousness of bread from the St. Ives Bakery.
  6. The Chaos having the whole month of August off is great, in that he has a whole month off, and not great, in that he shares that month off with every wailing snot-nosed child in the United Kingdom. Most of these children had converged, with their drained and pinch-faced parents, on St. Ives. Having no children, we were able, mostly, to avoid them, except for going up and down Fore Street, where you just have to stare blankly into the middle distance until it’s all over.
  7. The St. Ives Bookseller is a gorgeous little independent bookshop at the very top of Fore Street. They’ve won best bookshop awards from The Bookseller in the last few years. We didn’t buy anything there, which was, as you can imagine, painful, but it’s a really nice place to browse, with well-selected content and interesting displays.